Written by Victoria Myers
Photography by Jessica Nash
January 31st, 2017
In Fade, now playing at Primary Stages, a new TV writer and a studio janitor wrestle with what it means to be a young Mexican-American in 2017. And to write for TV. The play comes from Tanya Saracho who, yes, has written for TV (Looking, Girls, Devious Maids) while also being a playwright—she founded Teatro Luna in Chicago and is a member of The Kilroys. In October of 2014, we talked to Tanya about her career and the state of American theatre. The other week, we met with the charismatic and gregarious Tanya a few blocks from the Cherry Lane to talk with her specifically about Fade—what inspired it, using autobiography in work—and ended up talking about a lot more.
I know you’ve been writing for TV for a few years now and that’s the world where Fade takes place, but what was your moment of, “Oh, this should be a play”?
It wasn’t my moment; it was a workshop-mate’s moment. I was at the Center Theatre Group Writer’s Workshop and we met every other week. They would feed us, which was great, and they were really supportive and nurturing and everyone would bring in pages—and I never would bring in pages. I would always be rushing from my first TV job, barely making it and miserable—I hated my life. I was like, “I want to go back to Chicago. I hate it here.” I never had pages because there was no time because I was still learning TV. I was supposed to be working on a musical biography of Lupe Vélez, the first crossover Mexican star in the 20s. I did all the research but then was like, “How do I start this? How do I do this?” When we were checking in I was always complaining about my job, but I didn’t notice any of this, I was just like, “Get in there.” Then finally, I was complaining about my job and my friend Matt Gould was like, “Why don’t you just write about that? You complain about it every week, we have to hear about it every week, just write about that. Write a play about everything you’re saying.” Then the next time [at the writer’s group] I was like, “Here are fourteen pages,” and then it just came. It’s not autobiographical. It started from that moment, but it became its own thing. Just the experience of being in this new world that was so confusing that first year. It was so horrible. Now I got it, but that first year I didn’t understand the world—I’m talking outlines, final draft, pitching—basic things that you would know if you had studied to be a writer. So that’s how it came to be. Thanks to my friend Matt who was just like, “Just stop complaining and write.”
When you actually sat down and started writing it, you had your general subject matter, but did you have a visual image in your head or a scene or some other thing that set you off into creative land?
It started with the way [the play] starts now. I have a problem, because if I see a person who looks quote-unquote “Latinx,” I switch over to speaking Spanish, which has gotten me in trouble a lot because some people who look Latinx don’t speak Spanish. It’s not a marker of [being] Latinx to speak Spanish, and I know this, but my instinct to communicate in our mother tongue is so great that I do it all the time and sometimes people get offended. That’s how I met this janitor at the studio I was working in. He didn’t speak Spanish that well and I kept speaking to him in Spanish when he would come in and do all this stuff setting up my new office. I started speaking to him in Spanish and he could not understand. Then finally he tells me, “I don’t actually speak Spanish,” and that is in the play. That was my entry point. Then it just kept going from there. That was a real moment that happened to me, and after that it was like, “[what is] the reality of this girl? She just moved and she was a novelist.” You start fictionalizing. But the entry moment was my moment because I was kind of offensive. I just kept talking in Spanish to this guy. Why do I do that? I shouldn’t do that. It’s like a weird reclaiming. I don’t understand it, but we do it and it’s not good. We need to stop because it offends some people. Or it’s a form of code switching that they’re unwilling to engage in. Let’s say a server, for example, I see a server and then I right away speak Spanish. We are in an English space and I don’t know them, and maybe their job depends on them speaking English. That’s how the play started and then it became it’s own thing.
Did you do a quick or slow first draft?
For a long time, [this play] was 36 pages. We read it at CTG and I just had the 36 pages because I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t know what I was writing. I just knew I was writing as an exercise. I was supposed to be writing that Lupe Vélez piece that was a commission for Denver Theatre Center. I told Denver Theatre Center, “Hey, so I’m starting this other thing. I don’t know if it’s anything. Do you want to read the story pages? Can I switch over my commission to this?” They said yes and then waited lots of months for page 37. It never came, so they locked me up—this is real—in a lovely way. They gave me two weeks in an apartment during the summit and they were like, “Finish the motherfucking play”—they didn’t say it like that but they were like, “Please finish our play.” It was Denver and it was snowing and it worked. They have this theatre housing in Denver, so they just put me up in one of those. That’s all I did—ordered food and wrote. They had to do that. I’m having trouble focusing on the theatre stuff right now [while writing for TV], so it was smart of Denver because they had a play by the end of my entrapment. My residency. They seriously were the kindest, most patient. I’m just trying to be funny. But they really did lock me up.
When you were locked up, did you have any tools to help you get unstuck besides confinement?
No, you’re confined and there’s nothing else I was supposed to be doing. It was so easy then. Also, it was part of the summit so I had access to actors. We kept going back and forth. I kept workshopping it and going back to my PJs and writing. That’s why those residencies work, because you’re like, “This is all I can do.” For me, it’s about getting the space and time because I can’t just write in a coffee shop anymore. In my twenties, yes, I could. Now I’m so hoity-toity about it. I need a candle and I need incense and I need to do this version of my meditation, and then I write. But for that you need hours and hours of undisturbed work time. Sometimes I don’t get that for the theatre. Anyways, it was heavenly. Anytime I’ve gone to those residencies to write, it’s amazing.
Going off of what you were saying about the incense and the candles, do you do anything with visual images around the show that you’re working on? Or is that a separate thing?
That’s a separate thing. I did a play called The Tenth Muse that required not just research and history because it was a sixteenth-century convent play, but also images of, “Oh, that’s what a cell looked like for a nun.” So I did it for that. For TV, sometimes I need it for the same thing. That’s more for inspiration, not part of my meditation. My meditation just has my saints, my incense, my offerings. I have a little altar in my office. It’s really hard for TV because they give you an office and I don’t have all my stuff, so I guess my TV writing is not as sacred. For theatre and for my own pilots for TV, my process is more spiritual and esoteric.
When you’re writing, because it’s a world that you obviously know well, do you have strong images of exactly how you want it to look on stage?
Not while I was writing it. When I was writing it, I was just imagining my office that I actually had. Then when we mounted it for the very first time, and when I had to answer those questions, “Well, where does the water cooler go?” that’s when it became theatrical. When it was, “Okay, it’s not your office on the Disney lot, it’s for presentation.” Then it became something else, and [director] Jerry Ruiz is my artistic husband because he’s directed my three shows here in New York and elsewhere, so we have a shorthand. It becomes more communal. The world lives in my head, but I don’t have to translate this to an audience, he does.
All writing has autobiographical elements, but when you’re writing something that’s more identifiable that way, do you find that there are specific challenges to that? Both in the writing and also having to say in interviews “Well, it’s not actually me.”
Yeah, because people are going to think I’m that character and I’m not. I really am not. There are composite little versions of me speckled into her, but it’s not me. But no one’s going to believe that. There’s nothing I can do, because I say it and people see it as, “Come on, did that happen?” No, that actually never happened. When I wrote it, it was out of, “I need to express this,” but then it became something else. Because if not, it’s therapy, and I didn’t want to do therapy. What it became later on was examining, through writing, the fucked up [ways] we deal with Mexican class in these spaces, and my relationship with these two janitors [at work] and how they were the only Latinos I would see in the studio. I was like, “that’s the play: the fucked up ways that we don’t have agency or a place at these tables.” Then it was a play about class and modern Latinidad millennials. And a modern immigrant story, because we think of the immigrant story as one way: Undocumented, the coyote brings you over in a truck and then you go into the desert, which is real, it’s happening right now as you and I speak. But there’s also the immigrant story where the girl has never struggled to come here. She always had a passport and she always had money. She was born in Mexico but it doesn’t matter, she’s become Americanized enough that it’s not a problem. That’s an interesting story too. The fact that the janitor was born here, who’s an American, has to come face to face with that prejudice even from his own people—they see him only as this “other” Mexican. I was more interested in that than me working out my feelings about me wanting to go home to Chicago. Also, it became about selling out. I wouldn’t go there during the first production and the first workshops and they kept saying, “There’s something missing at the end.” I would refuse [to go there] and then, through a workshop and through a production, I was like, “Okay Tanya, why are you fighting it? Tell the story of what it means to sell out and how complicated that is.” That’s how the play goes away from the initial instinct of it.
We don’t see a lot of stories dealing with that.
After I did the 36 pages and we showed it to the writers group at the CTG, Matt, again, was like, “I’ve never seen that. I’ve never seen those arguments on stage by two Latinos. I never think of Latinos having different classes.” I was like, “Wait, hold on, really?” So I was like, “Well, I need to finish it.” The same thing happened at the big theatre festival in Denver when I finished it and we showed the first draft at the summit. They had never seen some of these arguments. We don’t have a lot of plays about millennials dealing with their Latinidad today. Sometimes we have old immigration narratives that are a little dated or issues that belong to our parents’ generation. But I don’t see our issues a lot in the American theatre.
From what I know of it, it seems like they tend to be treated as a monolith.
This is why I’m liking TV so much, but I’m also scared of it, because if you’ve never met a Mexican but you’ve consumed from film and TV, you’ve consumed whatever stereotype they have of us: maids, drug dealers, janitors. It’s very limited. Then you think that about us because you’ve consumed it from the media. That’s powerful. I think we need to use theatre too to dispel those misconceptions and preconceived notions of who we are. Also, we think we know the narrative. Like, “All right, you’re hardworking,” or, “You’re a criminal”—whatever they think of us. And not just Latinos—I’m talking “the other,” or immigrants, or people of color. They have a narrative of us, and I do think with spaces like this it’s important that we change it. Not change it for propaganda purposes, but make it complicated. I resisted this [at first], but by making Lucia more flawed I think I’m really helping: look how complicated it is and look how complicated we are.
Do you find that writing for TV influenced the form of the play at all?
They’re going to say it did, I already know. I was writing for TV when I had a play at Steppenwolf and at Second Stage, and they already said, “Well, she’s a TV writer. You can tell she’s a TV writer.” I don’t think so, but I guess people say that. Because it’s about TV, so the obvious answer is yes. Also, [in the play] they just talk the whole time. There’s no magical realism in it, there’s no crazy amazing aesthetic. It’s scenes between two people. So, yes, I guess.
Going along with the autobiographical question, I feel like, anecdotally, when you have women writers, people assume that it must be based on their life.
Yes, it’s true. I was just reading about that on the plane. Yeah, no, we can’t possibly have imaginations.
Last time we talked, you mentioned you were working on finding the balance between writing for TV and theatre.
I’m still bad. It’s getting better because I’ve given up. My second boss [in Hollywood] told me, and I didn’t believe him, “You know your theatre stuff is going to be tainted.” I was like, “Of course not. The reason I came to this stupid TV thing is for my theatre, that’s my real art form.” He was right. My scenes are shorter. I want to tell long, episodic storytelling other than [in] 90 minutes. And in the theatre, it can’t be topical. It can be socially topical, but I can’t write about Syrian refugees right now because who knows when they’d produce it. You’re going to have to write about human nature. To be topical and in the moment, it’s not in the cards for theatre. And it’s unfortunate because it used to support that more, but now it’s the way they choose seasons. So you write about human nature, in my opinion.
That’s something that’s come up in interviews in connection to the development process being so long. It makes it very hard for theatre to be responsive to what’s happening in that exact cultural critical moment. Now we’re going through this weird thing where everybody’s like, “What’s theatre’s response to what’s happening politically,” but at the same time, there isn’t really the agility.
The agility is the right thing, exactly. But that’s not how it used to be. Theatre used to reflect the times, or at least with allegory or a metaphor. The Crucible was about Salem, but it was about McCarthyism. That was a necessary piece of theatre back then. What is our necessary theatre now? Also, who is able to afford fucking theatre? Are my janitors going to be able to afford theatre? No. Theatre’s gotten so expensive. That’s another thing: who are we making this theatre for? It’s different. I used to run a theatre company, Teatro Luna, and we used to always keep it really affordable. It was on our webpage and everything: if you couldn’t afford it, but you wanted to see the play, we would get you in. But that’s not the model. It’s kind of sad, because theatre used to be so punk, badass, revolutionary.
Those are big questions. I’m not sure if anyone is answering them.
I think they’re having TCG panels about it, but then they don’t answer them. That’s [the thing] with theatre: so many panels. They have the right terminology, they have the right discussions, the right people having those discussions, and then nothing happens in those stage seasons. You see it and you’re like, “White straight men, white straight men…” I like TV because they’re at least trying to do something even though they do not know the terminology. They say any old thing. They’re not woke but they’re trying. They’re like, “Here’s some money. Write us out.”
Netflix and Amazon and all these places are opening the door for more voices, and it’s not the monopoly of distribution like theatre.
There are 500 TV shows this season. 500, that’s crazy. There’s a lot more opportunity, yeah.
There was an article in The New York Times a few weeks ago now that was talking about how there are ways that’s made us more polarized, because now people are watching things in their same echo chamber. We’re never going to have that thing again of Americans all over the country and of all different backgrounds watching the one big thing.
Right, but what it will do, hopefully, is it will let my show on Starz go, and people who want the echo chamber and who have never had that—I’m talking about Latinos—they’re going to have that. The model exists now, and there’s a space and the room. So it works for marginalized communities that haven’t had representation. I think a network would put their money behind something that they know is going to have an audience. They did these studies and found that Latinx millennials watch crazy amounts of live TV, like no other demographic, and they support whatever is the proximity to their identity. So they super duper support black shows because it’s the closest thing that they could find to Latino. But they don’t have a Latino Empire. I think that they’re listening to that and being like, “Okay, well we need to give this niche space.” So let’s just pretend that TV is art. I think the most popular—and I’m talking populous—of the art forms is TV. That’s the one that’s reaching that Alabama, pro-Trump lady who stood at the rallies, and the guy in South Carolina with the confederate flag. I feel like that is the way to fight. I’m calling my Senators, I’m donating, I marched. I marched for Black Lives, I’ve marched against the [Dakota Access] Pipeline, and I marched on Saturday [The Women’s March]. I don’t know what that’s doing. I will keep doing it, but also, if we could infiltrate their brain waves with TV and so they’re like, “Oh, maybe they’re not so bad,” and change their perception, maybe it will do something. It’s like a Fahrenheit 451 or 1984 type of situation right now. Who knows if we’re going to even be allowed to have TV? I’m being dramatic but I’m not.
I don’t think you’re being dramatic.
It’s real. You saw all the shit he signed. I’m in a town [L.A.] that’s super leftist right now, well, they’re like limousine liberals, but I think they can have some effect on perception. They’re artists and entertainers, they’re not going to have an effect on legislature, but on perception. Also, they made this monster too. That town made this monster. So now they have to clean it up.
I do want to ask you another question about writing though, before we talk more about the apocalypse. I was wondering if you could talk more about how your spiritual life affects your writing?
Since I was eleven, I have been going to Señoras. A Señora just means “lady”—a psychic, messes with herbs, does everything. My mom was at a party and a Señora came up to my mom and she was like, “You have to bring your daughter to me tomorrow. I need to see into her.” My mom was like, “Wait, what?” She finally took me to the Señora, I was too young to remember, but my mom got into that culture after that because she was like, “Well, we need to protect your daughter with a bath of rue.” Then it was in the house all the time, superstitions and respect for this world where women were wise and could divinate your future. Since high school, for New Years we did all these rituals. Not chickens or dead animals, more like prayers and a candle of each color and then you pray for the world. A prayer is a spell. When I say “bless you” when you sneeze, that’s a spell. When you pick up a penny for good luck, that’s a spell. It’s however you think about it. I kept it going in college, having my saints and my prayers. Then as an adult, when I got to Chicago, I found my own Señoras and I became more than what my mom was. I started going to a Santería and stuff. It’s all prayers and tarot cards, really. Mostly I just need them to know that I’m going to live for another week. I usually do it weekly. “Am I going to be dead by next week?” “No, you’re alive.” “Great, fabulous.” I just need that reassurance that I’m not going to die this week. It has helped me because I put my faith in so many things, and they just help me, especially with this weird thing that I chose which was playwriting, which doesn’t have linear path. You’re always going at it blind. Even when you think, “Oh, I’ve made it,” it’s not really there. There’s nothing promised. For that kind of career, it’s been great, because I just pray to the Virgin and she’ll help me. Also, “Señora, tell me what’s going to happen. Am I going to get that production?” “It doesn’t look good.” “Okay, then I’m not going to get excited.” Now it’s part of my writing, I have a little ritual because it’s been many years now. It’s a very big part of me.
Do you find that it affects your creative process, as well?
Absolutely. It’s my version of meditating. I have a bunch of candles that I light, but to light them you have to pray on them. I have a creativity candle. I have a candle for the archangel of artists and writers. They’re focusing the energy when I start a writing day. Usually I start at nine, and then I go throughout the whole day. I have a singing bowl that I clank to clear the space. I clear the space with spray. But the meditation is the part that sets me, it’s like a reset. Then you have to have an intention, so it’s like, “Please let me have success with this…” Then you have to state goals: “I want to finish up to page 60.” It helps me so much.
Do you have a dream project?
I had this trilogy that I was working on. I did this play called El Nogalar, which was an adaptation of The Cherry Orchard but with cartels. Then it was part of a trilogy, so a character from that was going to be linked to the second piece, which is Song for the Disappeared, and that’s the thing I worked on at Sundance Theatre Lab. I never quite finished it. Then I have a third piece, an adaptation of A Thousand and One Arabian Nights with two girls that are kidnapped. The way they stay alive is by telling stories to their captors. It was going to be a piece about what’s happening at the border in Mexico right now and have all these women at the helm. And then I didn’t do it. I stopped halfway. I’m so scared of it. [In the play] When the character tells a story, it turns into weird telenovela pop commercial stuff. It’s whatever her frame of reference is. So it was going to be small, but a big play too. That was what I was working towards.
For Fade, is there a question you wish people would ask you about the play that they haven’t yet?
Not a question. I just hope they take away the complexity of what it’s like to be Mexican right now. How we have to navigate and code switch in a way that maybe your average American doesn’t have to. I just hope that they get that when they’re thinking about us on an everyday level. People ask me, “What do you want the audience to get out of it?” I never know what to say because it’s whatever they want. But this one is, especially now that we’re in the apocalypse, [my answer is] just a little bit more understanding about how we have to navigate this country.